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Solidified Secondary Making A Difference

The Eagles' defense set the tone right away in the shutout of Washington on Sunday. On the very first play from scrimmage, Washington quarterback Josh Johnson rolled out of the pocket and fired a deep ball right into the hands of Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas.

Douglas ran to the sideline as the offense took the field and immediately slipped on a black ski mask victoriously. SkiMaskSZN was out in full force right away in the most important game of the season.

The number of ski masks worn by the players on the Eagles' defense make it seem like turnovers have just been free for the Eagles' taking this year. But it hasn't always been that way.

For much of the 2018 season, the Eagles struggled to force turnovers as a strength of the previous season became a struggle that contributed to slow starts. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz preached that if his players went out of their way to get the ball, it would only lead to mistakes. If attention to detail and lockdown coverage were the focus, the turnovers would come.

Then, in Week 14, the ski masks came out.

In the first 12 games of the season, the pre-ski mask period, the Eagles had just nine turnovers and a turnover differential of -8. In their four games since, the games with ski masks, the Eagles have nine turnovers and a +2 differential.

The correlation is obvious.

But Schwartz told reporters in his press conference Tuesday that the change has more to do with the progression of his players and their growing chemistry as a team rather than extra motivation to get a turnover.

"The ski mask thing is more fun for the guys," Schwartz said. "Anything that can promote some camaraderie and things like that are all good. But the turnovers come when you do your job and make the plays that come to you, including sort of the first play of the game.

"That had nothing to do with anything other than getting pressure, getting the guy flushed, having a guy in position to secondary pressure him, and Rasul being in position and high-pointing the ball and playing with good technique. Those are all the important things that come to takeaways."

That camaraderie is impressive considering the Eagles' revolving door in the secondary. Injuries have plagued key starters and forced midseason signings and changes of position. Nine different players have played the cornerback position at some point this season for the Eagles.

But through the chaos, the secondary has held its own. And that has been thanks to the improvements in the play of guys who have had to take on increased roles.

In his second season, Douglas started the season coming off the bench and making big plays. He had an interception of Matt Ryan in the Eagles' Week 1 win over Atlanta on his first defensive snap.

But late in the season, as he has battled injuries of his own, he has become a consistent starter on the outside and provided stability. Douglas has played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in the last five games and has two interceptions, three pass deflections, and 48 tackles.

Douglas has also played at safety at times this season and Schwartz complimented his ability to stay versatile and learn on the fly.

"I think his journey this year has sort of mimicked the defense as a whole," Schwartz said. "He's playing his best football late in the season. He's overcome some things. He's put some performances behind him. He's tackled much better. I think all the things you can say about Rasul you could probably just put the defense right next to him."

Another pleasant surprise has been cornerback Cre'Von LeBlanc, who was claimed off waivers from the Detroit Lions on November 5. He has been forced to play more than 63 percent of the defensive snaps in the last seven games and has started four times, mostly at the nickel cornerback position.

LeBlanc has been a stable force in relief for the injured Sidney Jones. He even locked down Odell Beckham Jr. in just his second game as an Eagle and helped hold him to five receptions, 85 yards, and no touchdowns.

Schwartz believes LeBlanc as well as first-year safety Tre Sullivan, who was activated from the practice squad before Week 6, have been crucial in the Eagles' turnaround.

"I think this sort of mirrors the rest of the guys," Schwartz said. "Cre'Von didn't come to us until midway through the season. Tre was with us and then back to the practice squad and then special teams role, and found a little bit of a role on defense after Rodney (McLeod) got hurt and was out for the year.

"They were coming from different positions, but they've both settled into those roles well and they've made enough plays for us to win five of our last six and get in (the playoffs)."

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